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American Enterprise

By Gregg Sangillo

Kathleen Franz is a curator for a new Smithsonian exhibition. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Kathleen Franz is a curator for a new Smithsonian exhibition. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

While watching the AMC series Mad Men, TV viewers gained a greater appreciation for the art and commerce of advertising. But with the show soon airing its final episodes, the public can now learn much more about the story of American business. Kathleen Franz, an American University associate professor in the History Department, is working with other curators on American Enterprise, a permanent exhibition set to open on July 1 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Franz is curating exhibit sections related to the history of advertising and consumer culture after World War II.

On March 27, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and several cast members were in attendance at a special ceremony donating artifacts from the show to the National Museum of American History. Jon Hamm—the indelible Don Draper—was there, along with Christina Hendricks (who plays Joan Harris) and John Slattery (Roger Sterling).

AU's own Franz spoke at the star-studded event and praised the landmark TV series. "Mad Men has invited viewers into the business of advertising in the 1960s. You've pulled back the curtain, and shown us the hard, creative work of advertising," Franz said.

American University history professor Kathleen Franz recently talked about a forthcoming Smithsonian exhibition about the history of American business at a

She then expanded on the upcoming exhibition at the museum: "Where Mad Men used objects to evoke the time period and flesh out the characters, we use material culture to engage visitors in the drama of American business history." While the Mad Men objects will not appear in American Enterprise, that exhibit has an extended history of the advertising industry.

A Different Kind of Exhibit

American Enterprise will occupy about 8,000 square feet and is part of the renovation of the museum's west wing. The exhibition—which includes sections on invention and innovation—will cover the history of American business from 1770 to the present. "It's the whole sweep of U.S. history, and the idea is that since the nation's founding, business has been woven into American society," Franz says in an interview.

This is represented through four marketplaces: the early merchant economy; the corporate marketplace, with the rise of big businesses like Singer; the consumer marketplace of post-World War II America; and the global marketplace, covering the 1980s through the present.

"We're doing this in a very different way than people might expect. Business history used to be the history of big firms, but we're thinking about it in a new way as the dynamic interplay between producers and consumers. So it's where producers, sellers, workers, and consumers come together," she explains.

Characters and Branding

Franz focuses heavily on the advertising section, which starts with Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s. This part of the exhibit includes beautiful print ads and signage, while spotlighting the key people behind the brands. The archivists and curators at the National Museum of American History have built one of the nation's best advertising history collections.

Franz added a few new artifacts to the collection, such as a 1920s outdoor advertising figure of Mr. Peanut, thanks to a donation from Kraft Foods, and the original drawings for the advertising icon that came through a donation from Robert Slade. Slade donated the original Mr. Peanut sketches drawn by his granduncle, Antonio Gentile, in the 1916 contest that created this spokescharacter.

Franz says spokescharacters are a component of branding practices that date to the late 19th century. Around this time, manufacturers started mass producing packaged goods and selling them nationally, and they wanted to make brands distinctive through branding and packaging. "If they created characters, they could have a friendly face for the brand and the business, and this would be an emotional attachment for people," she explains.

Public History

Franz directs AU's graduate program in public history, which focuses on museums and historic sites. She has an extensive museum background, and she earned a PhD from Brown University in American civilization.

Many AU graduate students worked on American Enterprise, and AU associate economics professor Mary Hansen has served as a consultant on the project. 

As the opening of the exhibit nears, Franz offers reasons why this history should be accessible and engaging. "I think most Americans have some sort of entrepreneurial spirit, and we're certainly all workers and consumers. So this takes a look at American history through the prism of business," she says. "In a more scholarly sense, it grapples with this idea that America has long had a definable tension between the pursuit of individual opportunity and the common good." She hopes everyone will come to see the show when it opens this summer.